Mission Men/Women

The “Men’s Breakfast” is a classic of men’s ministry at most Churches, and you really can’t have a mission week without at least one steaming load of bacon, eggs, and bleary eyes. Of course, looking out at a room full of blokes early on a Saturday morning is nearly enough to turn you off whatever breakfast is on offer.
Men come in all sorts and conditions, particularly at 8am on a Saturday. It’s hard to believe all the shapes and sizes, the ages, the sheer diversity of masculinity until you remove all the women from a room and really look around. Honestly, you need a good reason to perpetrate an aesthetic crime of such magnitude… Maybe it’s a form of brutalist performance art? Women are much easier on the eye.
Ed Frost gave a great talk on ‘Real Man’ – looking at the Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Jesus. I think behind the talk – what made it relevant – is the sense that masculinity is something a bit mysterious to most men. There is a real question about what makes a ‘real man’.

Questions about Gender always pop up around Mission time, and not just about masculinity. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had with friends over the past month around questions of gender and ministry.
The issues arise in 3 areas:

First, women are inadequately cared for in most Moore College Mission teams. There are usually 4-5 women on a team of 18-20, but most Churches like having both men and women involved in Church services or outreach activities. This means that women will usually be 3-4 times more busy on mission than men. In addition, it is often a female team member who is given responsibility for a large section of the children’s ministry – the busiest component of most missions. And then further, the kinds of roles that women will generally be given on mission won’t be as high-profile as those of the men. They won’t get the gig preaching on Sunday or at the large evangelistic event (unless it’s an all women event). Now, of course everyone will affirm that all ministry opportunities are equal, but that’s not always how it appears in practice or in team feed-back sessions. Often, at the end of a week of mission women have been overworked and under-appreciated, and frequently if they feel this, they only express it quietly, and to other women.

Second, mission tends to reopen the awkwardly settled question regarding the appropriateness of women teaching men. The members of the team send out little feelers to work out where everyone else stands, and even when we get this worked out, then we have the same process with the Church to which we are sent. It can be very awkward indeed if the Church and the Mission Team have different expectations about what women can do while on mission. It can be disastrous if communication breaks down. Again, it’s an issue on which men can be insensitive. How would you feel if you turn up on mission ready to lead a Bible Study or give a talk at Youth Group and then get pulled from the programme by the local minister when he discovers you are of the female persuasion? I don’t think many blokes would deal with that well.

Third, mission raises difficult questions about how our Churches are going about reaching out to men. Most Churches have more female members than male, it’s actually been this way since the Reformation, so don’t blame changes in society or Church leadership, at least not recent ones. But regardless of how long it’s been that way, we all know that it should be different. God wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1Tim 2:4).
There are interesting complications involved in both kinds of gender specific ministry.
For women, there are the incredible changes in the conception of femininity since the Second World War. Most of the events that are targeted at middle-aged women will be farcical to younger women – the classic example being the infamous gingerbread-house making event. The differences in experience, expectations, and self-understanding between someone of my wife’s generation, her mother, and her grandmother, should not be underestimated. Old PeopleAdd to that the diversity introduced through the different experiences (or lack) of motherhood. It’s not easy to work out a generic brand of women’s ministry because ‘woman’ is not a generic brand.

Strangely, the situation is different for men. ‘Man’ is a generic brand. There has been a very stable concept of masculinity throughout the same period in which femininity has been fragmented. Of course, the two processes are mutually dependent. If you need proof look at representations of masculinity and femininity in advertising over the past 5 decades.
But while the brand has been stable, men themselves are very diverse in character, and have found significant challenges to their self-understanding through the changes in women’s roles. So, while many women struggle to know what ‘Woman’ stands for, most men have a good idea of what a ‘Man’ is, and most of us can play the part when we need, but beneath the stable mask of masculinity can reside a continual sense of not-quite-matching-up.
So, what makes a real man?

This post is already far too long, so I’ll only offer one thought: Christians often go astray in their thinking about gender because they assume we can know the true nature of gender, and particularly masculinity, through some appeal to ‘how things are’ – through proper observation of the world. It is evident in theologies of Gender which start in Genesis and largely skip straight to Paul’s letters. What happened to Jesus?
We shouldn’t assume that we can know ourselves from the created order any more than we can know God. And for precisely the reason that the two kinds of knowledge are completely interconnected. Knowing God, gives true knowledge of ourselves. The conditions under which theology is possible are also the conditions for genuine anthropology. And just like our sinful minds are darkened when it comes to knowledge of God and our hearts become factories of idols, so, we cannot have a true conception of our personhood, our gender, until it is revealed to us in Christ.
Natural theologies of Gender aren’t the foundation on which we can become genuinely missionary men and women.

Read the rest of my Mission Diary
Photo by freeparking
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7 thoughts on “Mission Men/Women

  1. Hey, have we talked recently? I was just saying this same thing t'other day about the appeal to a kind of natural theology of gender…

    The text you have to deal with is when Paul appeals to 'phusis' in 1 Cor 11 of course… seems like a natural theology of gender perhaps?

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  2. That's weird, I was just thinking that the big problem is 1Cor 11…
    I don't know what to do with that yet.
    It's strange though that Paul's appeal to nature comes precisely in an area which appears to be highly culturally particular. Hair-styles?? What would a black-african make of Paul's claim about the appropriate length of a person's hair?
    And also, there isn't anything 'natural' about men having short hair and women long hair. If anything, short hairstyles are a great example of culture against nature.
    If Paul is making an appeal to nature here, does he also have some sort of revealed framework that illuminates this bit of nature and makes it authoritative?

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  3. Dan, great post.

    I think you're right about the interconnectedness between knowledge of God, and knowledge of humanity, but when you write, "We shouldn’t assume that we can know ourselves from the created order any more than we can know God", I think you fail to explicate why.

    God isn't found within the creation, therefore knowledge of Him from the creation is a hopelessly fraught endeavour. But human nature is found within the creation, it's a created entity. That means a natural theology of gender is much more viable.

    Re: 1 Cor 11. phusis long puzzled me in that passage, but I would argue that contextually you almost must understand Paul to be arguing from existing social norms. The whole tone of the chapter is about shame and paganism, in social terms. Otherwise, I expect to see a lot more crew-cuts and head-scarves.

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  4. Thanks Seumas,
    I take your point about God being 'outside' creation, and that this must have ramifications for our knowledge of him. But is this the reason that knowledge of God from the creation is a 'hopelessly fraught endeavour'?

    As far as 'human nature is found within the creation': My understanding is that men and women are created in such a way that Humanity mediates something of God to the world (an image). If we don't know what God is like, then surely we can't know what is most significant and intrinsic about ourselves?
    Sure, we can make all kinds of assertions about humanity based on our observations (this kind of chemical composition, this kind of environmental condition, etc) but this can never give us guidance on what is simply 'accidental', and what is 'essential' (I really hate both those terms).
    We need this kind of guidance because our understanding of sin commits us to the belief that humanity is not what it should be. Some features of our existence might be universal but not properly 'human'.
    If we don't have a theological ground for anthropology, aren't we in danger of simply baptising our own cultural assumptions about gender, etc?

    What I'd really love to see is a theology of gender that begins with Christology rather than Creation.

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  5. I agree substantively with your comments, but a theology of gender beginning with Christology, while certainly being a desiderandum, seems to leave us a little afloat. It must begin with Christology, but where will it get us? How would we, if we could, separate what is sinless-humanity, what is masculine, and what is circumstantial to a 1st century Jew on a messianic mission?

    I suspect the reason theologies of gender are so difficult is because there is so little to work with, and so each grasps for something to work from, which we rightly regard with suspicion when it baptises cultural presuppositions.

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  6. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has made the point — valid, it seems to me — that given we know the fall has left us with distorted male/female relationships, we certainly shouldn't look around at society, observe the way the genders appear to behave, and think that it reflects how we *should* behave.

    If anything, I reckon, we should expect that the gender traits we do observe are the way we *shouldn't* be — given the fall.

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  7. Hey Sam,
    Thanks for the comment. I guess I'm more agnostic about our 'natural' conceptions of gender.
    Just as the Christian can see God's goodness and God's hand at work everywhere in the creation, in the same way we might expect to see that much of our gender expressions are good and properly ordered. The problem is that we can't know what's good and what's not in advance of knowing ourselves in Christ.

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